Wyatt Tee Walker was born in Massachusetts, raised primarily in New Jersey, and attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia for his undergraduate studies. Walker was appointed pastor of the historic Gillfield Baptist Church in 1953, the second oldest black church in Petersburg, Virginia, and one of the oldest in the country.
Walker was arrested several times, the first time in Petersburg for leading a black group into a “white only” library. He was known for his flamboyant style and could create a stir simply by entering a room. Walker worked with citizens who filed a federal court suit in 1953 to gain access to a public pool in Lee Park. Instead of integrating, the city closed the park in 1954. The park was later reopened, but the pool was never used again by the city.
Walker was the president of the NAACP branch in Peterburg for five years and the state director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he co-founded in 1958. He also assisted in the formation of the Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA), which was inspired by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in Alabama.
The group devised anti-segregation strategies, including publicizing its activities. The PIA had 3,000 members by May 1960. Walker and PIA members gained agreement from the president of the Bus Terminal Restaurants to desegregate lunch counters in Petersburg and several other Virginia cities by staging sit-ins at the Trailways bus terminal in 1960. This was accomplished the year before the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961.
Walker became friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. He later became his chief of staff. He was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Walker later moved to Atlanta to become the SCLC’s first full-time executive director. During his presidency from 1960 to 1964, he led the organization to “national power” in its efforts to end legal segregation of African Americans. Walker also participated in and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
Walker was appointed senior pastor of the influential Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, New York, in 1967, and commanded a major pulpit in the fight for tolerance and social justice. Walker spent the 1970s as Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Urban Affairs Specialist, advising him in a volatile social environment.
Walker also completed his doctorate at Colgate Rochester Divinity School during this time. Walker also studied at the University of Ife in Nigeria and the University of Ghana during his graduate studies and research. Walker is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity’s Gamma Chapter.
Walker was one of twenty-five honorees who received the “Keepers of the Flame” award at the African American Church Inaugural Ball, which celebrated President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 18, 2009.